Labor Looks to Michigan for Longshot Win Over Key Incumbent

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By Tyrone Richardson

This year’s Michigan 7th Congressional District race is a rematch of 2016: Democrat Gretchen Driskell is seeking to unseat Tim Walberg, a Republican labor policy leader, by positioning herself as a moderate.

Walberg (R), who chairs a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee, has been at the front of efforts to undo a number of Obama-era labor initiatives. Driskell is emphasizing trade policy, one of what appears to be the few issues on which she agrees with President Donald Trump.

Labor unions backing the challenger want to slow Republican workplace policy overhaul by helping Democrats regain control of the chamber. To top Walberg, they’ll have to paint blue what’s been a mostly red congressional district. The suburban-rural area in the southeast corner of the state stretches from the Ohio line up to a portion of Lansing, the state capital. The district borders Ann Arbor on three sides but doesn’t include that city, where more than 80 percent of voters chose Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 election.

Walberg beat Driskell by 15 percentage points two years ago. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report says he leads in the latest race, putting it in the category of a “likely Republican” victory.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in March named Driskell as part of its “Red to Blue” program that offers staffing and fundraising resources for select candidates.

Walberg Ahead in Race for Campaign Cash

Walberg won a fifth term in 2016 despite trailing in campaign funding compared with Driskell, a former state representative and mayor of Saline, southwest of Ann Arbor. He’s leading in campaign donations this time around, but organized labor supporters and others say the winds of political change may lessen his chances of defeating the union-backed Driskell.

“Ms. Driskell has gotten more well known this time and Democratic turnout” in the Aug. 7 primary “was increased over two years ago,” Arnold Weinfeld, interim director at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, told Bloomberg Law. “I think it all depends on the issues that come to the forefront and voter turnout.”

Trump won Michigan by a slim 0.03 percent margin in 2016. Weinfeld attributes that, at least in part, to low voter turnout among Democrats as well as support for third-party candidate Jill Stein. The president won Walberg’s district by 17 points.

Wages, infrastructure, and trade policy are again likely to be key issues this campaign season.

Driskell Embraces Moderate Label

Driskell labels herself a moderate. She voiced support of the Trump administration’s use of steel tariffs as a means to level trade relations while also criticizing Walberg for backing bad trade deals and being unfriendly to labor unions.

Walberg campaign manager Stephen Rajzer ties Driskell to the current Democratic leadership in the House.

“No matter how hard Gretchen Driskell may try, she’s still the same ineffective candidate who failed to pass a single bill in Lansing and embraces Nancy Pelosi’s out-of-touch agenda,” he said.

Driskell responded by touting her legislative work, including more than a decade in city government.

“In my 14 years as Mayor of Saline, we had a balanced budget each year and our town was nationally recognized as one of the top 100 small cities in the country three times,” she told Bloomberg Law.

Democrats are counting on voter enthusiasm—focusing on congressional races as a referendum on Trump—to regain control of the House. But Driskell could also see a bump from the president’s name not being on the ballot.

Michigan law permits “single-ticket” voting, which allows voters to choose all of a party’s candidates with just one selection on a ballot. Driskell’s camp believes that helped Walberg ride Trump’s coattails two years ago.

Following the Money

The Michigan AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers, which represents workers at a General Motors plant in the northern part of the district, are among the groups that are supporting Driskell.

“Gretchen Driskell is a strong candidate and she understands that the key to a strong economy is a strong middle class with good wages and benefits and a strong retirement,” Stephanie Glidden, director of government affairs at the Michigan AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg Law. Glidden was a senior staffer on Driskell’s 2016 campaign. “Congressman Walberg has voted for outsourcing American jobs and it’s not good policy,” she said, referring to some of the lawmaker’s decisions on trade bills. “Taking back the 7th is a top priority of most unions in the state.”

Walberg had tallied more than $1.56 million in fundraising as of July 18, outpacing Driskell, who had raised $1.35 million by that time, according to federal election data. Some of his larger campaign donations come from utilities, automakers, and insurance groups.

Walberg’s supporters say he’s a worker advocate, despite the lack of union support.

“The congressman has been a champion of the right of the individual worker and we honor and support him,” said Greg Mourad, a National Right to Work Committee lobbyist.

GOP Majority Targets Obama Regs

Republicans have used their control of the House to undo a range of Obama-era regulations, including a rule that would have forced businesses to disclose information about “persuaders” brought in to fight union organizing drives. They have also shunned bills backed by Democrats to increase the federal minimum wage and expand unionization.

Walberg has supported a national right-to-work bill (H.R. 785), sharply opposed by organized labor. The measure, a version of which has been enacted in Michigan and 27 other states, bans collective bargaining contract terms that require workers who choose not to join a union to pay “fair share” fees.

Driskell opposes Michigan’s right-to-work law, which the state legislature passed in 2012 before she was elected. She traveled to the state Capitol before the legislation was passed, joining those from “across our state who knew that Right to Work was the wrong choice for our economy and work force,” campaign manager Erin Bozek-Jarvis told Bloomberg Law.

Walberg introduced a measure (H.R. 2776), now stalled, that would undo a National Labor Relations Board decision recognizing “micro units” of workers for bargaining purposes. He was a vocal supporter of legislation passed in the House that would strip federal labor rights from workers in casinos on tribal lands. Walberg called the measure a means to undo government “overreach” that thwarts tribal prosperity.

The Michigan congressman has meanwhile worked as subcommittee chair “to advance proposals to increase retirement security and address human trafficking,” Rajzer said. That includes introducing a bipartisan bill (H.R. 4604) that would help employers choose an annuity provider for their retirement plans.

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